Why it matters: One of the most intriguing smartphones of the year – the iPhone XR – launches later this week. Not since the iPhone 5c have we seen Apple offer a decidedly lower-end iPhone alongside higher-end counterparts (last year’s iPhone X was an anomaly and the iPhone SE arrived mid-season) but many have said that the iPhone XR doesn’t look or feel like a significantly cheaper phone. Is that really the case?
Apple has effectively redefined the term "budget smartphone." Modern iPhones traditionally sold for around $600 or so but when the Plus models came about, Apple tacked on a $100 premium. Last year saw another price increase across the board, with the flagship iPhone X commanding $999. Now, the "standard" iPhone XS fills that $999 slot, the iPhone XS Max begins at $1,099 and the "budget" iPhone XR seems like a steal at just $750.
Suddenly, the notion of a budget smartphone priced around $400 or less seems like a distant memory. It's still very much a reality as there has never been a better selection of entry-level phones available but Apple makes you forget all about that.
Some wondered how a more affordable - yet still quite capable - iPhone XR might impact sales of the premium iPhone XS. It's a valid question but what seems to have gone unnoticed is the fact that, by releasing the cheaper iPhone XR a month after the iPhone XS and XS Max, Apple has essentially made it a two-horse race.
The question is no longer whether you should get a new iPhone or a new Android phone, but whether you should get the iPhone XR or the iPhone XS. That's a brilliant strategy on Apple's part, even if it does cannibalize sales at the top end.
(Image courtesy Alex Cranz, Gizmodo)
For some additional insight, we turn to the experts who have spent the past week or so with Apple’s latest budget iPhone. Here’s what they have to say.
Nilay Patel with The Verge pulls no punches, delving directly into the question that most prospective buyers will need to ask themselves:
Here’s a question: how much do you care about the display on a phone? Take a moment and really consider it. If you were to put a dollar amount on it, how much would having a perfect display be worth to you?
Apple has an answer, and it’s $250.
That’s the price difference between the new iPhone XR and Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone XS — the price difference between the XR’s 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD screen and the 5.8-inch OLED screen on the XS. Apart from the display, the iPhones XR and XS are far more similar than not: they share the same A12 Bionic processors, the same main cameras with Smart HDR, the same iOS 12, the same gesture controls, the same wireless charging capabilities, even the same forthcoming dual-SIM support.
Daring Fireball’s John Gruber tackles another common conundrum:
There’s got to be a catch.
That’s what everyone has been thinking ever since Apple announced the iPhone XR alongside the XS and XS Max on September 12. Right? The iPhone XR seemingly offers too much of what the XS provides at a significantly lower price.
Well, there is no catch.
The iPhone XR is everything Apple says it is, and it’s the new iPhone most people should buy. I’ve been using one as my primary phone for the last week, and it’s a lovely, exciting device. Even some of the things I thought were compromises don’t feel like compromises at all in practice. Overall, yes, the XS and XS Max are better devices, but in a few regards the XR is actually better.
(Image courtesy Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch)
There are some subtle differences, however, as Brian X. Chen with The New York Times notes:
The XR’s single-lens camera is also less capable than the dual-lens cameras on the XS models. Yet the XR can still produce very satisfying photos of people using portrait mode, also known as the bokeh effect, which puts the picture’s main subject in sharp focus while gently blurring the background.
The XR is slightly less durable than its more expensive cousins. Its glass back is not as tough as the one on the XS. Its casing, or chassis, is composed of aluminum instead of the more robust stainless steel on the costlier phones. Yet these differences are negligible. (I recommend that people use a case to protect those parts of the phone anyway; carrying a phone without a case is a bit like driving a car without bumpers.)
Dig a bit deeper, as CNET’s Scott Stein does, and you’ll find even more shortcomings:
The iPhone XR doesn't have the pressure-sensitive 3D Touch feature that lets you do things like preview links, messages and files before opening them, as the iPhones 6S (£28 at uSwitch), 7, 8, X and XS series do.
In its place, the iPhone XR gives little pulses of vibration feedback -- called "haptics" -- for the lock screen camera and flashlight icons. Instead of pressing down, holding a finger on them will open them. Same for the Control Center's deeper controls. It kinda feels the same as 3D Touch. Apple's iPhone haptics are fantastic and add that physical-feedback "tap" satisfaction.
In the end, I still miss having those 3D Touch press-to-peek preview options, just a little. But since 3D Touch always felt somewhat underutilized on the iPhone, its absence here isn't a huge loss -- and if it's a must-have, that's a signal you should move up to the iPhone XS or XS Max.
(Image courtesy Amelia Holowaty Krales, The Verge)
Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch dishes on the iPhone XR’s camera setup:
The iPhone XR’s front-facing camera array is identical to what you’ll find in the iPhone XS. Which is to say it’s very good.
The rear facing camera is where it gets interesting, and different.
The rear camera is a single lens and sensor that is both functionally and actually identical to the wide angle lens in the iPhone XS. It’s the same sensor, the same optics, the same 27mm wide-angle frame. You’re going to get great ‘standard’ pictures out of this. No compromises.
However, I found myself missing the zoom lens a lot. This is absolutely a your mileage may vary scenario, but I take the vast majority of my pictures with the telephoto lens. Looking back at my year with the iPhone X I’d say north of 80% of my pictures were shot with the telephoto, even if they were close ups. I simply prefer the “52mm” equivalent with its nice compression and tight crop. It’s just a better way to shoot than a wide angle — as any photographer or camera company will tell you because that’s the standard (equivalent) lens that all cameras have shipped with for decades.
Rene Ritchie from iMore on video:
iPhone XR video, 2x optical aside, has exactly the same improved image stabilization and extended dynamic range as iPhone XS. That's in video modes up to 4K 30 fps, and everything but the extended dynamic range up to 4K 60fps.
You often hear about which phone camera is best only in the context of stills, not videos, but it's amazing just how much Apple does with video on iPhone XR and XS. Including now, stereo audio recording through a quad microphone system. Because a lot of it is driven by dedicated encoders and decoders that are part of Apple's custom A12 Bionic chipset, these are frame rates and audio capabilities some competing camera systems simply don't offer. (Trying really hard not to look at the Pixel 3 I have on order…)
(Image courtesy Amelia Holowaty Krales, The Verge)
Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz touches on performance and battery life:
The last time Apple made a serious attempt at a budget phone it was the iPhone SE—a device with great hardware design but a processor at least a year older than the other phones made by Apple. This time around, Apple is not asking users to compromise speed for price, and the XR has the same zippy A12 processor as the XS and XS Max.
In day-to-day use app use, like web browsing and checking your email, you won’t notice a difference between what it can do compared to the pricier phones or versus the A11 in last year’s iPhones. One exception is battery life. The A12 has worked wonders on the battery life of the phones that contain it. We saw this with the XS, which lasted about an hour and ten minutes longer than the X in our tests, and we see it again with the XR which lasted quite a bit longer than the 8 Plus, despite the 8 Plus having a larger battery.
In our test, in which we set the brightness to 200 nits, turn off all radios except the wifi, and stream a video on YouTube until the phone powers down, the iPhone 8 Plus lasted a measly 9 hours and 10 minutes and the iPhone XR lasted an impressive 11 hours and 59 minutes. For comparison, the iPhone XS Max (3174 mAh) lasted 13 hours and 7 minutes, and the XS (2658 mAh) lasted 11 hours and 11 minutes.
USA Today’s Edward C. Baig on some iPhone XR anomalies and Apple irks:
The XR froze on me twice during my test period, once in Control Center and once in the TV app. I had to restart the device each time to restore order. Since I’ve been experiencing crashes on an iPhone XS Max as well – and both phones were upgraded from my own iPhone X – this is something that bears watching.
Meanwhile, I feel obliged to ding Apple on the iPhone XR just as I did on the XS. Apple no longer includes the $9 adapter in the box that lets you use your wired headphones now that standard-sized headphone jack on iPhones is a thing of the past. Apple is clearly pushing you toward its own AirPods or other Bluetooth options. But for a trillion-dollar company, the move comes off as small.